A Vigil for McVeigh
My Night Among the Protesters at an Execution
by Patrick Henry Reardon
It is mid-evening on Sunday, June 10, 2001, as I leave Chicago, starting the tiresome drive down to Terre Haute after what has already been a long and wearing day. I plan to spend this night at the federal prison where the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh will be executed tomorrow morning, some twelve hours from now. A calm darkness descends on the corn and sorghum fields of northern Indiana as I drive along. The night is still warm, though showers are predicted. This would not surprise me, for we had several days of rain last week, and the sky is somewhat overcast even now.
I had hoped to be going to Terre Haute tonight as an official member of the press corps, but my written request to the Bureau of Prisons for a press card was never answered. When I called their public relations desk in Baltimore a few weeks ago to plead my case, the lady on the other end of the line, though unfailingly polite, extended no hope for the project. The bureau, she explained, had been deluged by thousands of such petitions from newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels all over the world, but the decision had been made that just a few large news agencies would be given access to the prison grounds. No, she said again patiently as I pressed the point, there was precious little chance of my obtaining one of those very limited authorizations. Yes, she agreed, it would be an unmitigated tragedy for those myriad Touchstone readers waiting breathlessly for my report, but there was nothing she could do. I went on to query how this could be. After all, when America’s Founding Fathers upheld the freedom of the press, wasn’t it chiefly Touchstone they had in mind? She sighed a faint hint of uncertainty on the point.
So here I am now, obliged to journey to the prison in the only other capacity available to the public at large—as a protester and political activist! This is a curious turn of affairs. Of all possible aspects under which the death of Timothy McVeigh might be of interest and concern to American citizens, only the political aspect is recognized by the American government. One sympathizes with the dilemma faced by the Bureau of Prisons, of course, but it is worthwhile to reflect critically on the government’s rather limited attitude toward this execution. Does the death of McVeigh have only a political significance? The people who made these decisions must think so, because it is a fact that provision has been made in Terre Haute only for news agencies and political activists, not for historians, philosophers, sociologists, behavioral scientists, cultural anthropologists, or essayists of opinion. If one is not a policeman, a newsman, or a political activist tonight, there is really no place for him in Terre Haute. Perhaps we are simply witnessing our country’s First Amendment at work. Freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are explicitly affirmed, but that about covers it.
Besides curious, of course, I also find the circumstance rather inconvenient, because it forces me to an inevitable decision. Since I may enter the federal prison grounds this evening only if I pose as a political activist, I have but two options. I may go either to protest McVeigh’s execution or to endorse it. Which do I choose?
For sure, I will not choose the latter, even though that choice would put me among citizens who probably represent the general mood of the country right now. Popular opposition to the death penalty has been somewhat muted with respect to McVeigh, I have noticed, and statistics show that Americans in general, most of whom already favor capital punishment in principle, are particularly keen that the principle be applied to McVeigh. For all that, it would be unseemly for me to join this group, for the simple reason that I do not endorse the execution of this murderer. Indeed, I prefer that my government not use the death penalty at all. I oppose all recourse to the death penalty, if not in law, at least in practice.
Moreover, in recent years I have seen some pretty rowdy “pro-death penalty” demonstrations on television, assemblies at prison gates to cheer and applaud the execution of criminals. Such displays are atrocious. To celebrate with mirth the violent death of any human being, even a man as evil as McVeigh appears to be, fills me with the deepest repugnance. I could not endure the shame of being associated with such a thing.
So here I am, obliged tonight to go in with the other group, those assembling at Terre Haute to voice a general protest against capital punishment. Let me confess that this choice is made without enthusiasm, for I have no interest in lodging a protest. Besides, even in opposing the death penalty I feel precious little in common with most of the folks who share this view. In fact, most of contemporary disapproval of capital punishment strikes me as both confused and unprincipled. For example, a good deal of the current resistance to the death penalty, particularly among Christians, is based on what they call a “consistent pro-life ethic,” which opposes the killing of criminals for the same reason that it condemns abortion. It seems to me, however, that the alleged consistency of this position represents nothing more than a failure to recognize a fundamental distinction. One hardly knows how to answer people unable to perceive the lucent moral difference between an innocent child and a guilty adult. It is intellectually irresponsible and morally unprincipled, I submit, to ignore this large and obvious distinction, boiling down such disparate components into a bland, homogenized brew called “respect for human life.” I have come to regard this as a kind of pop-Hinduism, and it is the reason why I have for years resisted being called “pro-life.”
So tonight I will likely not be much in sympathy with many of the people around me. I am resolved not to join myself to any group that is making a scene about capital punishment. I will try to keep to myself, and, may heaven help me, I will endeavor, with the Psalmist, to set a watch before my lips and a door about my mouth.
This should be a time for serious reflection. After all, a human being, a man made in God’s image and likeness, is going to die a miserable death this coming dawn, and as far as human frailty can judge, that man justly deserves to die that death. I cannot in conscience protest his execution. He fully deserves to die, and the state is amply justified in exacting the price of his life. I have no moral qualms with any of that.
As a Christian, however, and perhaps more intensely as a priest, I have a larger concern in this matter: Timothy McVeigh’s immortal soul. At last report this pitiful man is dying unrepentant and rebellious. This, I think, is the single matter truly worthy of Christian concern tonight. If an unrepentant Timothy McVeigh goes to hell tomorrow morning, it will be a tragedy vastly worse than the atrocity that he committed in Oklahoma City, for we have it on very good authority that the soul is of more value than the whole world. At Terre Haute in a few short hours there will be a moral and spiritual crisis far weightier than any political program. Indeed, with heaven and hell in the balance, there seems something more than slightly obscene about making the death of this murderer a mere occasion for political statements.
So why am I driving through the streets of Terre Haute right now? I believe I have come here chiefly to think. And if any decent thoughts come into my tired head, perhaps I will also write them down in this spiral notebook. And I am here to pray too, because that’s what a priest is supposed to do, and I have brought the Psalter with me in case there is sufficient light by which to read.
Free Among the Activists
This past week somebody in Terre Haute faxed me directions to a city park where government buses will gather us alleged activists and transport us to the prison. Arriving at the park at exactly 11 p.m., the first thing I notice is how few people are here. The TV news reports have been predicting crowds of thousands from all over the country, but I don’t see more than a few dozen individuals. Originally scheduled for May 16, McVeigh’s execution was postponed some weeks ago, and only in the past few days was June 11 definitely established as the certain date. Perhaps it has been difficult for people to make travel arrangements on such short notice. Whatever the reason, it is already clear that the press’s predictions about the size of the crowds are going to be way off.
I walk down to a little open theater in the park, where a dozen or so folks are listening to a very loud black man holding forth in thunderous, angry tones. With all his shouting about armies and fighting, it sounds like he is preparing us for a great war. It takes some really close listening to discern that he is preaching against the death penalty. (Only later will I reflect that he was the only black demonstrator I saw all night, and I never saw him at the prison. All of the “activists” in the prison were white people—no exceptions. I have not seen such thorough racial segregation since my childhood in the South. The only black people visible at the prison that night were among the security guards and the TV crews.)
The black preacher is followed on the stage by an aging white male guitarist, who evidently hallucinates that this is a hippie rally of the sixties, and a female vocalist who was obviously not born until well after the sixties. These two give an improbable rendering of “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” with the words changed to “Freedom’s Ladder,” thereby getting rid of that troublesome biblical note. They go on to whine out some other pieces, the lyrics of which are invariably anti-white, anti-Republican, and anti-wealth. The really bad guys in society are readily identified in these songs.
Unable to endure much more of it, I stroll over to where some teenage boys, apparently inattentive to the nearby musical attacks on capitalism, are trying to make a buck by selling soft drinks out of a large bucket of ice. Their entrepreneurial and mercantile spirit also extends to sharing calculations about how much of our tax money is being spent (foolishly, they contend) on the massive security required for McVeigh’s execution. They tell me that the police are going to close down state highway 41/63, the major road into Terre Haute, in the early hours of the morning.
Four big prison buses roll up exactly at midnight, and I take my place about tenth in the queue. Besides the inevitable college students and their professors, it is very interesting to note that some of the people in this queue are manifestly members of the press. Like myself, they have come armed with notebooks and ballpoints, and a few of them carry cameras as well. Evidently, then, Touchstone has not been the only journal to be denied official press clearance.
We board the first bus after a brief security check. There are bars on the windows, which one would expect in a prison bus, and the section where we passengers sit is enclosed by a kind of cage. The guards at the front and back are friendly and unarmed. Police cars with flashing circular lights accompany the bus to the prison. We are informed that no one may enter or leave the grounds except on one of these four buses. They will be kept going to and fro all night, as needed.
The Big Field
As we pass through the prison gate at 12:30, a bright three-quarters moon lies low on the horizon, defying the overcast sky. We exit the bus into a large, slightly damp, freshly mown field surrounded by an orange plastic fence. At its closest, the field is about three hundred yards from the prison compound. Several massive floodlights at the corners of the area dispel much of the darkness. There are probably only about thirty of us from that first bus, but we are immediately invaded by many times that number of reporters and TV cameramen from the near side of the field. They all want to interview us. I flee some distance to a part of the field where two long lines of hay bales have been placed for us to sit on through the night. Somewhat farther behind these lines is a series of portable outhouses thoughtfully positioned for our convenience. I have been wondering somewhat about that problem, so I am glad to see them. There is also a large tent in case of rain. I am beginning to think better of the Bureau of Prisons. The second bus arrives at 12:45. It appears to be carrying a higher percentage of genuine protesters, one of whom is wearing a T-shirt that says, “I talked to God. She is pro-Tim.” Brace yourself, my soul, it could be that kind of night.
As I have ever found among liberal activists, there sure are a lot of heavy cigarette smokers among these protestors, which perhaps does not augur favorably for the future of the movement. I confess that experience prompts me to associate chain-smoking to anarchy and nihilism. Maybe the impression comes from photographs of Camus. I don’t know. Several years ago, on a street corner in Pittsburgh, I passed a haggard, pot-faced old gentleman who was protesting the slaughter of baby seals or something or other. He was wearing a T-shirt that said “Atheists United.” As I neared him, he chain-lit his next cigarette. “Keep puffing, old timer,” I encouraged him, “you’re nearly there.”
Here in the prison the official reporters still outnumber the protesters by at least twenty to one. One reporter from the Lafayette Journal and Courier, who like myself was unable to obtain a press pass for this evening, must somehow manage to scrape up a story about this event, so he proceeds to interview me. Since I talk mainly about Touchstone, however, he decides that my comments can probably serve only in a sidebar.
And these poor TV cameramen—they are looking desperately for something interesting to take a picture of. Finally, one of the protesters obliges them. He sits down on a bale of hay and lights a tiny candle that he sticks in the ground in front of him. Our section of the field is immediately transformed with purpose and activity. That pitiful little candle stuck in the ground is only about six inches high, but eager multitudes promptly greet it as the seventh wonder of the world. The Gentiles gather to its light, and the rejoicing nations assemble in its shining. Reporters circle the flame like moths. Several TV cameras come swooping and diving on it at various angles. Apparently mistaking it for the Eternal Flame, one cameraman prostrates himself before it, lying flat on the ground to get a level shot of it. This ground-level shot is perhaps the lead-off picture for tomorrow morning’s TV news in Seattle.
An hour or so has gone by. Sitting here on a bale of hay, listening to five or six reporters interviewing every protester (ten reporters if the protester is carrying a lit candle), I note what appears to be a shortage of fresh views on the subject of capital punishment. I think it may help if the reporters would ask fresh questions. They invariably begin with “Why are you here?” and the answers become very predictable. I listen to an earnest, articulate Roman Catholic deacon from Michigan questioned by at least a dozen reporters during this past hour. They all ask him exactly the same set of questions, and he gives exactly the same set of answers each time, all of the answers asserting the ineffectiveness of capital punishment in deterring crime.
I finally move farther down the row of bales. Possessed of neither a lofty mind nor a strong stomach, I have to get away from this kind of comment. The death penalty should be abolished because it fails to deter crime? What kind of thinking is this? It seems perfectly obvious to me that, if a man has committed a crime deserving death, then he deserves to die. His execution should have nothing whatever to do with preventing similar crimes by other people. It seems perverse to kill one man in order to make a salutary impression on other men. Punishment has nothing to do with future crimes; it is concerned solely with past crimes. To inflict the death penalty on murderers in order to prevent future murderers is not very logical.
So it is equally illogical to protest that the death penalty is “ineffective” in doing what it is not logically expected to do. If a state decides to stop recourse to the death penalty, that decision should have nothing to do with statistics about deterrence and crime prevention. A major problem here is that we have become accustomed to government by statistics rather than by principles.What of the Night?
Interviews are going on all around me, and every reporter, without exception, begins with “Why are you here?” Along comes a lady from a Montreal radio station, frantically seeking someone to interview for the folks back home. “Does anybody here speak French?” she inquires. I tentatively raise a hand (with two crossed fingers), and she comes bounding over to stab a mike at my face. “Pourquoi ête-vous ici?” she asks. “Parce que je suis un journaliste comme vous,” I answer, “et je cherche aussi une histoire.” The mike is promptly removed, and though she raises her eyes and hands to heaven, I sense that the gesture is not one of prayer.
No stars are visible, but the moon has been steadily rising. It is now three o’clock in the morning, and the number of us activists has grown to perhaps a hundred, but probably fewer. I think this is what they call a peaceful demonstration. We are stationed about 300 yards from the prison block itself, and rumor has it that the “pro-death penalty” enthusiasts, whose number is only a fraction of ours, are placed much farther away to the north, well out of sight. I think this information is coming from the reporters who have been over to the other place. The police and press are using golf carts to go back and forth between the two groups.
From time to time I have been walking out to the far, uninhabited end of the field, to think and pray. Thanks to the big floodlight out there, I have been able to recite many of the Psalms. I think the security guards must be a bit nervous, though, and apparently my presence out near the back fence has attracted their attention. A young lady in uniform circles the field to stand near me on the other side of the fence. “Why are you out here by yourself?” she inquires in a friendly tone. “Trying to pray, ma’am,” I answer. “Good idea,” she says, “say a prayer for me.” I smile and go on.
When I come back to the long row of hay, I am approached by some of the college kids. It turns out that they are not here to join in a protest but to fulfill an assignment for their political science class. They must interview a certain number of us activists and write up a report. And they have some really new questions for me, as soon as they discover that I am not here to protest the death penalty. Do I believe that the state has the right to take the life of certain kinds of criminals? Absolutely. No, I do not believe capital punishment is “state-sanctioned murder”; it is, rather, a legitimate exercise of “the right of the sword” (jus gladii). Does Timothy McVeigh deserve to die for his crimes? That question, I think, has already been answered by a properly selected jury of his peers. The man forfeited his claim to life by taking the lives of others. His execution by the state is an act of justice, based on the authority that God shares with the properly constituted state. This is the explicit teaching of Holy Scripture and all of Western classical philosophy.
My answers lead to further questions about Western philosophy and the basis of a properly constituted state, and soon I find myself giving a little lecture on political theory. The kids begin to write energetically as I mention Aristotle, Aquinas, and Locke, but also the likes of Hobbes and Mill and B. F. Skinner. After about ten pages of notes, the young people say that they have enough material to satisfy the claims of their political theory course.
But why am I not over there with the other crowd, the folks endorsing McVeigh’s death? Because I do not endorse McVeigh’s death. I decry his death. I deeply lament his death. I am convinced that if this were a nation of Christians, McVeigh would not be put to death, today or any other day. He would be locked away someplace to live a very long time, alone with his thoughts, and his Bible, and his conscience, and with frequent visits by a priest. Christians should not want McVeigh to die right now. As long as he is alive, that sinner may yet turn from his wickedness and live. He is a young man. Who knows what his mind may tell him some thirty or forty years from now, when sheer age may have softened the sentiments of his heart and caused him more deeply to reflect?
No one has convinced me that Christ our Savior wants this man to die today. Yes, he will be righteously executed this coming morning to restore and affirm the integrity and justice of the civic order, but I am more concerned about his immortal soul right now. It was for his soul that Christ died. A nation of Christians, who still hoped in the mercy of God and the power of his grace, would want this man to live as long as possible in order to afford him ample time to perfect his repentance in the fear of God.
The End of the Vigil
A little while ago, about four o’clock, the Terre Haute Abolition Network showed up here to begin their 168-minute vigil (one minute for each of the Oklahoma City victims) prior to the scheduled execution. This is not a big group, perhaps thirty, and they are seated silently in a circle of great dignity and reverence. Right now, at 6:10, they are still sitting out there in the rain, while I have retreated, along with the other and less stouthearted activists, to the comfort of the large tent. All together there are fewer than 150 protesters here in the field, and it is obvious that no more are coming. I will remember this the next time I hear about “growing opposition to the death penalty.”
Another reason commonly given for such opposition is that capital punishment is a barbarous sort of deed, which enlightened, progressive, culturally advanced, morally superior nations consider abhorrent. Which nations? Well, chiefly those of Europe. This particular argument against the death penalty is really just another aspect of an older American impulse to model our cultural forms on European standards. Since virtually all of the great ideas that shaped the foundations of our nation came to us from Europe, this approach to the question does manifest an initial plausibility.
There is a problem, nonetheless. Europe’s abolition of the death penalty, in point of fact, is a fairly recent phenomenon that has nothing to do with the older traditions informing its civilization in the robust days of its glory. On the contrary, right now there is considerable evidence (to cite but one example, its woeful birth rate, the lowest in the world) that Europe is in very serious cultural decline, and its current distaste for capital punishment is more readily explained as an aspect of that declension than as evidence of a moral advance. Europe’s present attitude in this matter is the progeny of neither biblical doctrine nor classical philosophy. The parent of its recent preference is not Christian sentiment but humanist sentimentalism. It has nothing to do with ancient cultural foundations; it has much to do with Cartesian subjectivism, the rosy naïveté of Rousseau, Hegelian idealism, Benthamite utilitarianism, and the despair of Sartre. We are not dealing with the clear-headed Europe that once knew how to perceive principles and work its way through syllogisms. So one should doubt, I think, the wisdom of looking in a European direction for sound moral guidance in this matter.
The rain has stopped, and it is nearly seven o’clock. A great deal is happening now. The interviewing by the reporters has long been over. Our drenched field is at present full of TV crews. Near me is a team from a Tokyo television station. Also, as dawn broke not long ago it became clear that a much larger security force, amply armed, had moved into place during the night. They are all positioned on the west side of the fence, between us and the prison compound, as though to keep us from trying to rush the place. What a paranoid thought. To the southwest of our area a long row of TV trailers has recently appeared, with many transmission dishes and antennae. Across the road behind us, where there is a small restaurant, I see the parking lot full of large TV trailers from each of the three major channels in Louisville, Kentucky.
I check my watch. It is already a minute or two after seven o’clock, the scheduled hour of the execution. I have been praying all along, and the last few minutes slipped by so quickly. McVeigh is probably dead already. De profundis clamavi ad Te, Domine. What a truly terrible hour this is. Opus manuum tuarum, Deus, ne despicias.
Suddenly everything starts to go sort of crazy. There are constant low passages of a helicopter overhead. I ask a guard what sort of helicopter that is. “I don’t see any helicopter,” he says with a straight face. Everybody is stirring. From somewhere in the crowd a concealed banner is unfurled: “Remember Waco.” A preacher jumps up with a floppy Bible and starts a very strong message on the need for us all to repent. The protesters in the circle will have none of this, however. Each time he tries to preach, they drown him out with yet another stanza of “We Shall Overcome.” (I vaguely remember a time when I liked that song.) He starts to yell louder, bellowing at the top of his voice about the love of Jesus and the shedding of his blood. The protesters sing louder and drown him out, “We Shall Overcome.” By sheer force of numbers, they do overcome, but it is clear that there have been several different agendas out here in the field this past night.
The confusion, which I suppose comes from the frustration that all of us feel, lasts about a half hour, and then the first bus pulls up at 7:40. They cut the queue off right in front of me, so I will be the first person on the second bus back to the park. A young woman in a black tank top elbows ahead of me in line. I don’t blame her for wanting to be the first, not the second, on that next bus.
The ride is uneventful, and all of us are very tired. No police escort this time. The bustling city of Terre Haute is beginning a new day. Traffic is thick. As we arrive at the park, where I retrieve my car, a rather nasty group of people across the street starts to taunt us through a bullhorn, yelling out Scripture verses interspersed with such sentiments as “Go to hell with McVeigh, you murderer-lovers.” I find the car and get my bearings, for it was dark when I arrived last night. Having been in this city before, I recall that there is a fine Cracker Barrel restaurant several blocks south of here. If I am to get back to Chicago in one piece, I had better get some coffee.
As I drive toward the restaurant, I am also entertaining visions of ham and eggs and grits. Just as I walk in, however, I suddenly recall that this is the first day of the Apostles’ Fast in the Orthodox Church, so I sit down and order some pancakes instead. I also grab copies of The Indianapolis Star and the Tribune Star of Terre Haute, both of which have pictures of various demonstrators and activists on the front page. I don’t know where the newspapers got these pictures, because I did not see any of these individuals last night. Also, they left out that little candle.
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“A Vigil for McVeigh” first appeared in the September 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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